UNC’s magic continues in Omaha, and comes from unlikely source in Game 1 victory over UVA

The latest conjuror of whatever wild mojo continues to fuel North Carolina’s run through this NCAA baseball tournament may be the greatest proof yet that something strange and powerful is going on with these Tar Heels; something beautiful for anyone left delighted or short of breath, or both, by their talent for winning in the most daring and dramatic of ways.

The latest conjuror, this time, on a scorching opening Friday of the College World Series, hadn’t produced a base hit in a few weeks. He’d lost his starting position long before that. There was no reason ever to expect that he’d be the one delivering just what UNC needed in the bottom of the ninth inning against Virginia; that he’d do what he’d done only twice this entire long season.

And yet there he was after the Tar Heels’ 3-2 victory — something of a satisfied grin stretching over his face outside his team’s locker room; a trickle of blood slowly running down his left shin from a gash in his knee. And now he could smile about that, too, and how he’d come to sustain it.

“That was my unathletic slide into second base,” Jackson Van De Brake said, looking down at the blood and the scab-to-be, and he’d made that slide after sending a line drive down the right field line that just stayed fair after he led off the bottom of the ninth of a 2-2 game. The slide went “straight through the pants,” he said in a deadpan kind of way, and left him with the cut.

It was like something out of a movie, a sweaty Keanu Reeves-type ready to pop out somewhere with that iconic (perhaps in its own way) line he delivered on screen all those years ago: Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever. Except, even in the movies, it’d feel too unrealistic, too preposterous, for UNC to keep winning like this, over and over again. And yet ... it continues.

Somehow, it continues.

“I probably should ease up on the Red Bulls, I guess,” said UNC’s Scott Forbes, who was managing his first College World Series game as a head coach. After it ended one of Forbes’ players, Parks Harber, was talking with a couple of the coaches, asking how they’ve managed this game after game, the stress of it. As Forbes remembered it, Harber told them he didn’t know if he’d make it to 50; that his heart might give out before then.

“I can relate to what Parks Harber feels like,” Forbes said. “I can tell you that.”

Van De Brake’s double, his third of the season and only his 15th hit, overall, allowed the Tar Heels to do what they’ve done best since the start of this tournament: win games in their final at-bat. Soon he was on third base with one out after a sacrifice bunt and then there were two outs after an infield pop-out.

And then he was coming home — arm outstretched, celebration already on — after who else but Vance Honeycutt singled to left with a line drive just out of reach of the stretched-out arm of the Cavaliers’ shortstop, Griff O’Ferrall.

Ballgame. And cue another mob scene, this one leaving UNC players conflicted and wondering whether to surround Van De Brake at home or Honeycutt after he rounded first, the result already decided.

It would’ve been dramatic enough regardless of the characters. But that it was Van De Brake, who has been on an odyssey of accomplishment and disappointment and struggle and perseverance and hope and waiting for another chance — that raised the stakes, and the quality of this particular chapter.

Consider that just a season ago, as a junior, he’d been a second-team All-ACC player. He’d started 57 of 58 games at second base and led the team in on-base percentage. He’d made the most of his decision to come East — far East, for him — after growing up in Yakima, Washington. Until coming to play for UNC, he’d never been to North Carolina. It took him a second Friday to think about the farthest East he’d ever been, before that.

“Like, Montana,” Van De Brake said.

Last season, the supposed Baseball Gods, those fickle rulers of this fickle sport, blessed him. But then a brutally cold hitting stretch forced him out of the regular lineup about a month into this season and his opportunities dwindled. Games came and went without any at-bats. His role as a reserve solidified, and that’s one of those things that can be difficult for any athlete, but especially those who’ve had success. And especially now, in this time of limited loyalty.

Still, Van De Brake said, “I just love this program and I love my teammates, and coaches.”

“There’s nothing that can make me change from that. I play for those guys and regardless of what my role is, I’m going do what I can do for those guys.”

When he received word that he was going to get a chance in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game in Omaha — of a tie game in Game 1, with a chance to help UNC avoid the loser’s bracket — Van De Brake said two words went through his mind: “I’m ready.” Five pitches later, after delivering on a 2-2 count, he was on second base, bloody knee and all.

Despite his early-season laboring at the plate, and the reduction of his role, Van De Brake remained one of UNC’s co-captains. He has come to epitomize the team dynamic that Forbes has so often referenced in recent weeks; that cohesion that has allowed these players to accept roles that others might find difficult to embrace.

“There’s a reason this team is like it is,” Forbes said.

Said Casey Cook, the Tar Heels’ third-year left fielder: “You don’t want it for anyone else other than Jackson. He’s our captain. And we love it for him.”

Before Friday, Van De Brake hadn’t had an at-bat in 21 days. He hadn’t produced an extra-base hit in 38 days. That, though, was a long time ago. A lot has happened since then. Strange things. Baseball things. UNC keeps winning like this, and the victory against Virginia was its fifth of the NCAA Tournament in its final at-bat.

The Tar Heels’ so-called “Bosh magic” traveled to Omaha. And now perhaps it’s spreading.

How else to explain the kind of thing that happened Friday, with a guy from Yakima, Washington, of all places, sending North Carolina to the winner’s bracket in the College World Series; with a player who couldn’t get a hit near the start of the season delivering one of UNC’s most important near the end of it.